WoW Factor: What could World of Warcraft’s next expansion do to save the game?

    
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Just absolute galaxy brain

You know what I miss? Writing about World of Warcraft as a fun game to play. Not writing about the latest iteration of sexual harassment scandals or how the game has been consistently and horrendously mismanaged for years now, but writing about this as a fun game I enjoy playing. It’s not that the other issues are worth ignoring or anything like that, and I consider failing to address them to be negligent journalism at best, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wearying to constantly have that to talk about.

But of course, we can’t ignore that in many ways the fact that Blizzard is a simmering dumpster fire and that WoW has been mismanaged for years are two connected but not inseparable problems. So let’s examine things from that angle. What does the next expansion need to have in it to be attractive, to make people sit up and get excited, to avoid the sort of tepid response that’s been a direct result of the past several expansions? I have some thoughts.

First and foremost, I want to address the simple reality that this column is going to be focusing purely on the gameplay side of things. The fact is that while Blizzard’s culture of harassment and marginalization are bad things and need to be fixed, the solutions there are… well, pretty obvious. The problem suggests the path to fixing it. There’s not much to write about there, and while these are aligned problems, the path to fixing one does not fix the other along the way.

So let’s talk about fixing the problem of the expansion. The first thing that the expansion needs – and this might seem counter-intuitive, but bear with me – is a story that is divorced from the past several years of storytelling. It needs a setting, an arc, and a path that are decidedly lower-stakes.

Why? Well, for one thing, basically no one has been happy with WoW’s storytelling for several years now. Resetting and re-grounding an expansion to be about something lower-key would give everyone an opportunity to not precisely ignore the past few years of story (that’d be difficult at best) but reset and re-calibrate the overall arc of the game’s storyline. And it will help immensely to re-orient the game toward the sort of storytelling that the game has traditionally been better at, which is… well, not an attempt at deeply character-based narratives, for starters.

What would actually make a pretty significant change is a return to something more loose and abstract, more about an environment and a broad setting that focusing in with laser-like precision on a small cast of characters. The people who are guiding the story right now simply do not handle that sort of storytelling well; better to focus on the sort of more gradual sweep and spread for the setting, leaving more spaces for characters to explore their individual motivations and wants.

But even if we’re going to have to focus on storytelling, just… throw out what we’ve been doing for a little bit and take a break. Space things out. Focus on different characters and an entirely different arc. Stop doing this thing that nobody likes.

YAAAAAAGH

Still, that’s not going to do enough to make people excited about the game by itself. You know what would have a more substantial impact? A promise of an expansion with no borrowed power. None of this “unpruning” garbage; just promising people “you’ll get new abilities and we aren’t planning to get rid of them in two years” alone will be enough to draw cheers and excitement from the playerbase.

It feels like the lowest possible bar to clear. No one has been excited by systems that will only stick around for one expansion ever, and the more clear it is that these systems exist for one expansion and then get discarded, the more people clock out ahead of time. But the pop that would happen from a promise of no such one-and-done systems would be delightful. People would be beside themselves.

Would a new system being introduced with the expansion be welcomed? Not really, no. In theory it could be, if people thought that the system would stick around, but steadily even the systems that were introduced as major expansion features (Inscription, Jewelcrafting and gem slotting, and so forth) have been basically pruned from the game at this point. Now announcing nothing like that would be the best way to illustrate that these systems were actually intended to stick around and last.

You know what else would be good? More cosmetics. More visual customization. Yes, we got a lot of this with Shadowlands. Offer more. Keep pushing this aspect. It’s one of the only parts of Shadowlands that’s been positively received, so why stop with just one expansion’s worth of boost? Keep going. Offer more inscription cosmetics. Offer more.

For that matter, it’s time for some major changes. I’ve been vocally pushing for years for letting people group up and run content regardless of faction. It matches where the game’s setting is at this point; it shouldn’t be a debate any longer. The game needs this to give itself some more vitality. Stop talking about lore as if it’s not being written to support this and axe the archaic divide between factions.

The next expansion also desperately, urgently needs a new class to help get people excited. Whether it’s a new base class or a new hero class doesn’t matter. But even missing that would be acceptable if, say, the game offered new specs for all of the existing classes and new class/race combinations.

This was not excitement.

You might notice that at this point I haven’t specified the actual location or theme, and that’s because that part honestly isn’t as important for this particular exercise. What matters more is the sense of a clean break, of having something new to do and explore. And I do mean new. Give us more areas on the old world to explore? Fine. Dragon Isles? Fine. Some new land mass we’ve never heard of? All right. But it should be on Azeroth and should be not cosmic, not a continuation of the nonsense we’ve been dealing with for the past several expansions, just… adventuring and exploring weird areas and the like.

Besides, focusing on the theme or the content is, in and of itself, kind of a trap. I feel like the key points aren’t what new cosmetic options we get or what the new class might be; the key is that we get these things. The key is that we have something new to explore and a sense that permanent changes are going to be made to the structure, not just another content island that’s going to stop mattering the instant the game has another expansion.

Is that actually what we’ll get? I don’t know. It’s possible that even Blizzard isn’t entirely certain at the moment, that some of the huge content and expansion delay that we’re seeing represents a matter of trying desperately to figure out where changes need to happen and what courses need to be corrected. But it strikes me as the sort of thing that needs to exist as a baseline before people can really get excited.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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